I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about how to be positive in the face of terrible things happening. We touched on an issue that is so incredibly common in people who struggle with depression, myself included, that I wanted to do some writing on it.
There are terrible things happening in the world all the time. Starvation, genocide, corruption, all manner of suffering. It’s easy, if you care about humanity, to feel like the problems we face are insurmountable. In a more local way, me and this friend have been watching the controversy over sexual harassment at atheism conferences play out and getting increasingly depressed over how many people just don’t seem to understand the issue at all.
Dealing with issues like this is difficult. It’s exhausting, and doing it for a long time can make you feel like the world is full of idiots, and there’s no point to even trying. It can make you sink into depression.
It’s easy, when you reach this state, to feel like your depression is justified. “Well this does suck”, you say to yourself, “The state of the world IS terrible, that’s something to be depressed about.”
It’s true, it’s completely understandable to be depressed about depressing things. It’s understandable, but, and this is something that it took me a long time to learn, it isn’t correct. Being depressed about depressing things isn’t like getting the right answer on a test. If World Misery averages to 57 misery points per person, and you yourself are exactly 57 points miserable, there is no prize for you. Because misery is not about truth. Misery isn’t about being correct. The point of misery isn’t to emulate the aggregate state of miserableness in the universe.
There’s a lot of talk in chronic pain research about the evolutionary origins of pain. One of the ideas that pops up now and then is that the point of pain is to change behavior. Touch a hot stove, and you do damage to yourself. Because it hurts, you will avoid touching the stove again. Because you avoid touching it again, you prevent that damage from occurring again.
If extreme heat wasn’t bad for us, it wouldn’t hurt. If there was absolutely nothing we could do to avoid heat, it wouldn’t hurt, because the pain wouldn’t cause us to behave any differently. The point of pain is to change your behavior. Where pain doesn’t affect your behavior, it isn’t useful.
The point of all this pain talk is this: misery is a type of pain. The point of emotional pain is the same as the point of physical pain: to get you to change your behavior.
Why does watching all this sexism and disregard for harassment issues in the atheist community make me so miserable? Because it’s a serious issue that needs to be addressed, and if it didn’t make me miserable I wouldn’t care. If it didn’t make me miserable, I wouldn’t want to work to change it. The point of misery is to get me to work to change the thing the misery is about. The point of misery is not to be as miserable as the situation, the point is to be motivated to change the situation. Where it does that, misery is a powerful force for good.
Sometimes, however, it goes overboard. Sometimes misery spirals into a cavern of doubt and despair and helplessness. In those moments, it is tempting to feel like all of that despair is justified. It’s accurate. It’s correct. Thinking that way, though, is missing the point. Misery is not about truth. It’s about being motivated to change the misery-causing things. When your misery no longer does that, it is no longer serving its purpose. When that spiral happens, even if there are miserable things happening all around you, the best thing you can do is cheer yourself up. Don’t get trapped in the idea that your misery is correct. The best thing you can do is to get yourself to a place where misery can serve its intended purpose: changing things.
I’m not going to help the atheist movement one whit by being depressed about what’s going on right now. I’m going to help by making a difference in what’s going on. If I’m feeling too disheartened by it all, then I need to watch kitten videos until I feel like making a difference again. Until I’ve put misery back in its rightful place.